Why Flame Retardants Don’t Stop Fires

firefighter-1717918_960_720Opposition to the use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture is based on scientific evidence indicating adverse health impacts – from reproductive health issues, to neurotoxicity, and hormonal disruptions. However, those advocating for increased regulation or outright bans are often met with the reaction, “Would it be better if we burnt to a crisp?” Fire safety is valid concern that warrants attention. The very name “flame retardant” implies the prevention of fire. Therefore, removing these substances from consumer products implies the heightened possibility of fire, injury, and death.

However, scientific research has shown that flame retardant chemicals are ineffective in preventing furniture fires. A study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that “fire-retardant foams did not offer a practically significantly greater level of open flame safety than did the untreated foams” (2012, p. 23). In addition, Babrauskas et al (2011) finds comparable levels of fire development in both flame retardant-treated, and non-flame retardant treated furniture. Similarly, Talley (1995) notes, “The [flame retardant-treated] foam made no significant, consistent difference in either ignition or flame spread.” In fact, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that although California had previously necessitated the use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture, it had the same rates of reduction in fire deaths as other U.S. states that did not require the use of flame retardants (Shaw et al, 2010). These studies indicate that flame retardants are not the answer to fire safety.

In fact, we have many kinds of fire safety regulations involving fire alarms, sprinklers, and building codes, which have improved fire safety without chemicals. Yet, cigarettes have been a significant cause of home fires. Canada was one of the first countries to regulate cigarettes, to reduce the likelihood that they would stay lit if dropped. Moreover, some materials are inherently less flammable than others, and so products and construction materials can use less flammable materials, rather than justify the use of more flammable materials by adding flame retardant chemicals to them. For instance, wool is a great example of a fire resistant material that can be used in upholstered furniture.   

Lastly, those on the frontlines of fighting fires have been vocally opposed to the use of flame retardants, as the presence of flame retardants in furniture and other products and materials can adversely affect the health of firefighters. In fact, the use of some flame retardants can increase the emission of toxic gases, smoke, and soot (Green Science Policy Institute, 2016). As a result, many organizations that represent firefighters, such as the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), and the European Fire Fighter Unions Alliance (EFFUA), have actively called for an end to the use of flame retardant chemicals.

In 2013, California passed TB-117 (2013) – a flammability standard, which eliminates the need for flame retardants in upholstered furniture. Prior to this, California used TB-117 (1975) – a standard that encouraged the use of flame retardants. Of the shift to the new standard, Governor Jerry Brown wrote, “Toxic flame retardants are found in everything from high chairs to couches and a growing body of evidence suggests that these chemicals harm human health and the environment … We must find better ways to meet fire safety standards by reducing and eliminating—wherever possible—dangerous chemicals” (Brown, 2012). The history leading up to this important victory warrants discussion, and sheds light on the question: “Would it be better if we burnt to a crisp?”

Prior to the passing of TB-117 (2013), Senator Mark Leno put forth four separate (and unsuccessful) bills to end the use of flame retardants in consumer products. Citizens for Fire Safety led the opposition, arguing that eliminating flame retardants heightens our risk of fire danger. This organization, however, was a chemical industry front. Images of children were used in the group’s advertising, and actual children were sent to Committee meetings to ask voting members “not to let them burn” (The Human Experiment, 2013). With such industry-sponsored marketing, it is no wonder that we associate flame retardant chemicals with fire safety, despite scientific evidence indicating that flame retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture do not increase fire safety (Chicago Tribune, 2012).

As we call for the elimination of flame retardant chemicals, we are not ignoring fire safety. Independent science tells us that the use of flame retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture are ineffective in preventing fires, and those on the frontlines of fighting fires are opposed to the use of flame retardants. Flame retardant chemicals cannot ensure our safety in the event of a fire, and our exposures to flame retardants puts us at increased risk of adverse health impacts. As noted by Vyentis Babrauskas a leading researcher in fire safety science, and fire protection engineering the situation is “the worst of both possible worlds” (Roe and Callahan, 2012).